If there’s a restaurant story of the year, it’s the explosion of casual restaurants with good—I mean, really good—wine lists right out of the gate. I’ve mixed feelings about the claptrap ambiance of such places, but if the wine selection is good enough, the other sins are nearly forgiven.
Welcome to Racines NY, with a two-letter suffix to distinguish it from the original Racines, which opened in 2007 on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris. Practically all of the pre-opening press describes it as a wine bar. With its ample selection of offbeat wines by the glass, you could be very happy if you came here only to drink.
But the owners prefer the term “neo-bistro.” The chef, Frédéric Duca, is straight off the plane from Paris, where he earned a Michelin star at L’Instant d’Or. He serves a tightly-edited and frequently-changing menu of just five appetizers ($14–18), four mains ($31–38), and three desserts ($10–12).
Hardly a restaurant opens these days without a separate list of bar snacks, seemingly for noshers who don’t want to commit to a full meal; or, more cynically, a ploy to lure diners into ordering an extra course. Racines goes the opposite way: the only item really suitable for snacking is a cheese course ($18). Exactly what the lithe, 108-pound starlets sipping rosé at the bar are nibbling on is a mystery I leave for another day.
The menu’s brevity seems more like a manifesto than a constraint. Mr. Duca’s kitchen seems to be able to do almost anything. The lack of, say, a charcuterie menu, appears to be a choice, one that might profitably be re-visited.
The mostly-French wine list runs to 20 pages, with a generous amount of white space. It is limited to wines fermented with natural yeast, from grapes harvested by hand, grown without herbicides or pesticides, and bottled with little to no sulfur (an ingredient that reduces spoilage). This constraint obviously implies some limitations: on the poor, lonely page devoted to red Bordeaux, there are just seven choices, whereas the list of wines from the Loire goes on for a page and a half.
Whether the wines selected by Racines’ criteria are actually the better ones is a question I leave for others more qualified. At the very least, it takes you down the road less traveled by. There are plenty of choices below $50, and I’d say at least half are below $100. There’s no good reason not to try something with some bottle age. The 2002 Olga Raffault Chinon we ordered, at $66, could be fairly described as a bargain, at only slightly higher than two times retail.
The meal began with ploughman’s bread, served with soft, luscious butter that I’d guess is custom-made for the restaurant. The amuse bouche (above left) was a halibut mousse with donato sauce (tuna, capers, vinegar) that was more humdrum than it sounded.
Ordering was difficult, as everything on the menu sounded good, aside from a hanger steak with eggplant.
Both appetizers were wonderful: a steamed egg ($16; above left) with chanterelles, potato agnolotti, and parmesan; a cold English pea soup ($16; above right) with lobster, vanilla oil, and Iberico ham.
Red Snapper ($34; above left) was served with octopus and mussels. Lamb ($38; above right) was served two ways: belly and blood-red loin with the rich consistency of a Peter Luger porterhouse; but I didn’t much care for any of the bland vegetables that came with it: fennel, artichoke, black olives, and salsa verde.
The cheese plate ($18; above) offered a selection of three, two from Vermont and a French cheddar.
The appealing proffer at Racines is undermined by the service. Staff are a bit over-eager to take orders and clear plates—would that happen in Paris? In his two-star review for the Times, Pete Wells praised the sommelier’s recommendation; but he paid no attention to us. Perhaps only celebrities and high-rollers known to the house receive his ministrations.
For a restaurant this expensive (our bill was $214 before tax and tip, and that was with a lower alcohol bill than I would suspect is the restaurant’s average), there could be more attention paid to creature comforts. Wine is served in all-purpose glasses. Tables are small, and scrunched fairly close together; and on a fairly warm evening there was no air conditioning, nor even much ventiliation.
Chambers Street may be the last of Manhattan’s major thoroughfares that has not yet been conquered by a destination restaurant. Racines is on a rather ugly stretch of it (is there a nice part of Chambers Street?) that is currently under heavy construction. That has not at all deterred New York’s wine cognoscenti from finding the place. It was bustling at 8:00 on a Wednesday evening with a beautiful crowd, albeit one that thinned out considerably by 10:00. The neighborhood is safe, but there’s no reason for foot traffic to be here after the sun goes down.
With a Michelin-star chef in the kitchen and a wine list that will reward repeat visits, Racines has only a few rough edges that need to be smoothed out. When and if it does, it could make the transition from interesting to compelling.
Racines NY (94 Chambers Street, east of Church Street, Tribeca)
Food: A compact menu, prepared with French technique and local ingredients
Service: Inconsistent, but certainly good enough
Ambiance: A charmless narrow, deep room with wooden tables, dominated by a long bar